The simple answer is not to apply to any college that you can’t afford to attend.
Of course, given that the vast majority of financial aid is awarded by colleges, most students don’t actually know if they can afford a college until they are accepted and have received their financial aid award letters.
However, the fact is that families can get an idea of how much aid they are likely to receive from a college using the institution’s Net Price Calculator. (There will be a link to it at the College Navigator website if you can’t find it on the college website.) If you can’t afford this basic estimate, then pass.
Next, find out what percentage of need the school meets. The calculator might say that you have a certain need but that doesn’t mean the college is committed to meeting it. Look to see what percentage of students are taking out non-federal loans to attend the school. If it’s a high percentage, it’s probably something you can’t afford.
Does the college require the CSS form instead of or in addition to the FASFA? Make sure you use the College Cost Calculator at the College Board since it requires information that isn’t required for the FASFA and can result in a significantly different expected family contribution (EFC).
Finally, the family needs to consider the situation of being able to afford the reach school but paying significantly less at a match or safety school because of merit scholarships. Are you willing to $100,000 difference over four years to attend the reach school? The difference could fund study abroad, new car, graduate school, or start-up money for a new business. Is the reach college worth it?
The one sign that you really shouldn’t apply to a reach school? When the student and/or family says that if the students gets into x school, “we’ll find a way to pay for it.” If you don’t have a good idea of how you’ll pay for it before you apply, you shouldn’t be applying.